1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

"Yarmouk is a hell hole"

Interview: Diana HodaliApril 6, 2015

Thousands of Palestinians are caught up in Syria's war, living in horrific conditions in the Yarmouk camp in Damascus, now largely under 'Islamic State' control. DW spoke to the UN relief agency for Palestinian refugees.

Yarmouk Camp Damascus Syrien
Image: Rami al-Sayed for unrwa.org

DW: After being expelled from the area on Thursday, the "Islamic State" along with the al-Nusra Front - two groups which fiercely oppose each other elsewhere in Syria - have captured most of Yarmouk, the district in southern Damascus mostly inhabited by Palestinian refugees.

Other factions, including the troops of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, are also fighting in Yarmouk. How is the situation?

Christopher Gunness, spokesman for UNRWA: What I can tell you from the perspective of a humanitarian organization is that civilians are caught up in this appalling conflict. There are 18,000 civilians, among them 3,500 children.

The situation is changing by the minute inside the camp as far as the strategic balance is concerned. Their lives are threatened. They are holed up in their battered homes too terrified to move which is why we are saying that there must be a pause (in fighting), there must be humanitarian access for groups like UNRWA.

There must be maximum restraint shown by the warring parties such that civilians who wish to leave can be evacuated safely. And thereafter, it would be, I hope, possible to build on this and to take serious steps towards lifting the blockade and the siege of Yarmouk.

Yarmouk Camp Damascus Syrien
Up to 90 percent of Yarmouk is believed to be under IS controlImage: Rami al-Sayed for unrwa.org

Why did it take IS overrunning Yarmouk for its starving and dying residents to receive worldwide attention?

I think it's interesting that Yarmouk has been at the center of world attention. The question is can this world attention be translated into political action. Because we have long said that the time for humanitarian action alone has long passed, and what we need is the world powers - the big players - to bring the necessary pressures to bear on the parties on the ground, who bring sense.

First of all, that obligations under International law to protect civilians can be respected. That's the most important thing now. Secondly, we need humanitarian access. We've been barred from the camp because of the fighting for the last week, and we need to get in there to deliver food and medicine and water, and all the other things that people need.

And beyond that, we need to stabilize the situation in the camp and make sure that the appallingly inhumane conditions are dealt with, and that people are brought out of this desperate plight that they have been forced under.

Yarmouk has been in a very difficult situation for a number of years, since the war started. Has the most recent fighting exacerbated this?

It has become markedly worse. Yarmouk was already a place where women had died in childbirth for lack of medicine, where children had reportedly died of malnutrition. So things were already appalling. Last September we had the main water supply into the camp destroyed. So people are heavily dependent on the supplies of UNRWA.

Things were absolutely inhumane. Yarmouk was a hell hole frankly. And with the eruption of this intense fighting, things got dramatically worse.

Yarmouk Camp Damascus Syrien
Yarmouk's residents have suffered through regular clashes, government shelling and a Syrian regime blockadeImage: Rami al-Sayed for unrwa.org

You've said the international community needs to act. What can the international community do?

We are hoping that the Security Council can meet, and we are hoping that they can start bringing the pressures to bear on the parties. And that means all the parties involved. We need concerted political action. Those powers know who they are and they know what they have to do.

And we hope that meaningful diplomatic and political pressure can be brought first of all, to allow a pause, to allow an evacuation of civilians, to allow humanitarian access and then for there to be meaningful steps towards lifting the siege of Yarmouk.

Christopher Gunness is a spokesman for the UN agency known as UNRWA, which supports Palestinian refugees.

Interview conducted by Diana Hodali.